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UMD boosting efforts to prevent sexual misconduct

University of Minnesota Duluth senior Lizzie Easter leads a bystander intervention workshop in the Garden Room of Kirby Student Center Thursday, Oct. 4, in Duluth. The workshop is a part of UMD's Consent Week activities. Clint Austin / Forum News Service

DULUTH — "Sexual assault stops when you step up," declares a new poster going up around the University of Minnesota Duluth.

The posters are part of UMD's new public-awareness campaign, called "It Ends Here," aimed at providing intervention techniques to potential witnesses of sexual misconduct. University of Minnesota President Eric Kaler issued an initiative in 2017 challenging campuses to develop plans to address sexual harassment, sexual assault, stalking and dating violence.

At UMD, Kaler's challenge has become a multi-point initiative developed during the 2017-18 school year by UMD's Sexual Violence Response Team. In addition to the campaign, the plan calls for supporting the work of UMD's Sexual Assault, Domestic Violence, Stalking and Dating Violence Task Force; faculty and staff training sessions; student education and engagement; and an evaluation of the effectiveness of the initiative.

UMD Chancellor Lendley Black wrote in an August email to staff and faculty that the priority is to reinforce "our commitment to a healthy campus climate" and build on sexual misconduct training that has already taken place with staff.

The initiative's overall goal is to empower people to act when faced with a sexual misconduct situation, said Lisa Erwin, UMD's vice chancellor for student life and dean of students. For faculty and staff, it means knowing what to do if a student reports it to them. For students, it's knowing what to do if they see it happening or where to get help if it happens to them.

UMD Police Lt. Tim LeGarde said police want students to understand that sexual misconduct isn't tolerated at the university.

"We want everybody to know that this is a safe place and our department works very hard to keep it that way," he said.

Addressing sexual misconduct

Although Kaler's call happened last year, Erwin said there was a noticeable increase in interest in improving UMD's handling of sexual misconduct following the 2011 "Dear Colleague" letter issued by President Barack Obama's administration, which outlined the legal obligations colleges had in addressing sexual violence cases on campus. That letter has since been rescinded by current Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.

The 2011 letter was a "real strong" call to action at universities and colleges to take the issue seriously and the new initiative is providing an additional spotlight on the issue, Erwin said.

UMD's newest initiative on sexual misconduct included a training last spring that all supervisors and 99 percent of faculty and staff completed. Several follow-up trainings are expected to held this fall that cover sexual misconduct scenarios faculty and staff may handle on campus, Erwin said.

"Consent Week" is typically held at UMD in the spring to coincide with Sexual Assault Awareness Month in April, but it was changed to the fall for the first time this school year. Consent Week included a PAVSA program on the basics of sexual violence, a keynote speech by Minneapolis resident Sarah Super, who began the organization "Break the Silence," and a bystander intervention workshop hosted by UMD Health Services and Women's Resource and Action Center.

Sexual misconduct prevention is also one of the major themes for UMD's Student Association this school year. Erwin said staff is excited about the students taking it on because "students have the most power at changing culture for other students."

Statistics

UMD's number of reported incidents of sexual misconduct have increased over the last several years.

The number of reported rapes decreased to three in 2017 after six reported rapes in 2014, seven in 2015 and nine in 2016, according to UMD's crime statistics released last week. However, the number of reported incidents of fondling jumped to 12 in 2017, an increase from one in 2014 and 2015, and four in 2016.

LeGarde said the increase in the total number of reports is a result of effective education and an environment in which it's becoming more acceptable to report. Erwin also said the increase isn't due to more sexual misconduct incidents occurring, but rather the culture shifting.

"It's about taking the shadow and stigma off of reporting. It's the most underreported crime in our society and that's also true on our college campuses. For us, it feels like some measure of success when we know more students feel more comfortable coming forward to report what's happened to them," Erwin said.

In addition to prevention, the new initiative is intended to chip away at the stigma of reporting it, she said.

LeGarde noted that students still face challenges in reporting.

"The feedback we get from (the students) a lot of times is that they're embarrassed, they're frightened, they don't know what's to come if they do report it, they might be afraid of retribution of the attacker. There's a lot of different aspects to that and that's why we try to take that victim-survivor approach so we can empower them during these investigations and let them know that it's not just an assembly-line investigation, that they're going to be a part of this and we're going to help them through it," LeGarde said.

In the 2016 campus climate survey, the most recent one completed at UMD, 4 percent of respondents reported that they had experienced unwanted sexual contact while they were a member of UMD's community. Of those, 84 percent said they didn't report it, giving reasons such as fear of retaliation or an escalation of incidents, fear that they wouldn't be believed, a belief that it wasn't "a huge deal," concern that nothing would be done or they blamed themselves, according to the survey results.

As UMD continues its work on the initiative, a team will evaluate its effectiveness. The end game is to decrease sexual misconduct, but that may not happen in the near future because society is still grappling with it, Erwin said. There's no way to know how many cases they're preventing from occuring in the first place, but Erwin said she expects the number of reported cases to continue to trend upward until society's view of sexual misconduct changes. There's still work to be done to make reporting OK, she said.

"In society, there's still a great deal of stigma. There are few cases that are prosecuted in our justice system, not just where we live, but in society," Erwin said. "Until the culture shifts, I can't really predict when those numbers will change. Do I think the prevention efforts have an immediate impact? Absolutely I do. I think all the different ways we're reaching out to students will have impact."

Go to d.umn.edu/sexual-assault for more information.

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